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KARE child advocacy center helps the county’s most vulnerable

For almost 30 years, KARE has served as an advocate for children who are victims of abuse. Cory Vaillancourt photos For almost 30 years, KARE has served as an advocate for children who are victims of abuse. Cory Vaillancourt photos

Just off Waynesville’s North Main Street, in one of the town’s most blighted areas, on top of a small hill sits a little green house that many people drive by each day, without noticing it at all. 

That little green house also sits at the epicenter of Haywood County’s network of victim advocacy providers. It’s called the KARE house, and it’s where many of the county’s most heinous crimes are revealed and investigated — crimes against children. 

Inside that little green house — airy, bright and homey — there’s a framed picture on a wall, a stick-figure drawing with a big red heart and words obviously scrawled by a young child — “It is OK, they are here to help all of us too!” 

KARE Executive Director Savannah Clark pulls it down off the wall and gazes at it. 

“This is what gives us our ability to do this work, because a lot of times this work can be very hard,” she said. “We see a lot of bad, but we do get to see a lot of good, too.”

Established in 1991, KARE (Kids Advocacy Resource Effort) carries out some of the most heart-wrenching but essential work in the county on behalf of some of its most vulnerable residents. 

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“When there is an allegation of abuse or severe neglect we are that neutral partner to provide a forensic interview,” said Clark. 

As the county’s chief child advocacy center, KARE has a memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement and the Department of Social Services to provide a variety of services when referrals are sent their way. 

The little green house, donated by the Robert Forga family, serves as a comfortable place for parents to bring their children when they’ve been the victim of physical or sexual abuse, or have witnessed a crime. There are books and toys, drinks and snacks to keep them occupied while parents or guardians fill out intake paperwork. 

Trained forensic interviewers carry out a neutral, fact-finding interview that is recorded for investigative purposes and can last as long as two hours. As one of the oldest — and one of few — nationally accredited child advocacy centers in the state, KARE has two trained forensic interviewers. 

“What that means is we have to meet a certain set of standards. It’s a rigorous process,” Clark said. “The forensic interviewers go through a 40-hour training. Luckily this year, we’ve been able to have extra training.”

Although almost anyone can become a forensic interviewer, KARE’s standards are a bit higher than that. 

“Some other child advocacy centers require a licensed clinical social worker, but for us, we require that you have a bachelor’s degree and then we do a lot of training,” said Clark. “One of our interviewers has a background in social work, the other has a background in mental health. My background is in criminal justice. We spend a lot of time on our training, making sure they’re comfortable and prepared for any situation.”

KARE also provides on-site medical evaluations for children, designed to further the investigative process. 

“We have a physicians assistant who is gracious enough to come in and she does what is basically a wellness exam,” said Clark. “We work with ages normally beginning around 3 or 4, it just depends. We want to make sure the child is safe and healthy — that is KARE’s main goal, to make sure our kids are safe and healthy.” 

The work KARE’s Maria Rivera and Mary Bowles goes a long way in meeting that goal — they’re the ones on the front lines of the battle. Usually, one will do the interview, while the other will take up the advocacy side of the equation, helping parents or family members of victims understand the investigation process and, if necessary, the court process. 

“A lot of times parents come to us in the beginning stages, and it’s like they found out their kid has cancer,” said Rivera. “They’re just in shock.”

A major benefit of the way KARE is structured is that it serves as a “one-stop shop,” meaning a child doesn’t have to be repeatedly interviewed and repeatedly re-traumatized by recounting their experiences. 

Every two weeks, KARE holds a multi-disciplinary meeting involving the District Attorney’s office, local law enforcement, the Department of Social Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice and various mental health agencies. 

“We’re constantly communicating with law enforcement, the Department of Juvenile Justice, DSS, therapists in the area, Vaya (Health), the DA,” Bowles said. “This brings everybody to the table, so we can figure out how to best help these families.”

That being said, people like Clark, Rivera and Bowles have a pretty good idea of how much child abuse actually takes place in Haywood County. 

“It does come and go,” said Bowles. “On average, we see approximately 200 kids each year. Haywood County is in the top five for abuse allegations across the state.”

That’s not necessarily because residents of Haywood County are more abusive. At least part of it is that both adults and children in Haywood County have a higher awareness of abuse, due to decades of advocacy and education by organizations like KARE. 

“I don’t think there’s any one specific thing that contributes to it,” said Bowles. “Every case is different, but I would say it’s sometimes mental health or drug abuse. It’s something that can happen to anyone. A lot of times we look for a reason why, like alcohol or drugs, but sometimes there isn’t a reason. That’s really hard for people to take, that it’s just something that happened.”

Staff at KARE immerses themselves in situations most people don’t even want to contemplate, much less live through on a daily basis. There is, however, a positive side to the work that ends up being rewarding in the end. 

“It’s the first chance the child has to be heard. To me, that’s just the beginning of the healing process,” Rivera said. “So they come in, they tell their story, and then they’re surrounded at that point with the advocacy side, which will then hook them up to therapy, or whatever else they need. So yes, it can be horrific, but it’s also the beginning of the healing process. It gets the ball rolling.”

 

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The interviews are a necessary reaction to allegations of abuse, but KARE also takes preemptive measures designed to stop abuse before it starts, and to help kids understand what is abuse, and what isn’t. 

“We’re in all elementary schools, kindergarten through age 5, with health and safety programs,” said Clark. “We teach good secrets/bad secrets, safe touch/unsafe touch. If there’s abuse in the home, when these kids come to school for the first time, they may not even know it’s abuse.”

KARE also offers something called the Triple P-Positive Parenting Program, a multi-level parenting and family support strategy that aims to “prevent behavioral, emotional and developmental problems in children by enhancing the knowledge, skills and confidence of parents,” according to KARE’s website. About 30 families are enrolled in the program. 

Not every county has a child advocacy center like KARE — Jackson County has AWAKE and Buncombe County has the Mountain Child Advocacy Center, but Clark estimates that across the state there may be only 40 or 50. 

“Everything is free,” said Clark. “As of right now we don’t bill insurance either, because we don’t want to have to turn somebody away for the inability to pay.   

Relying on community donations to support its work — and its annual $325,000 budget — KARE also receives a fair amount of grants, including a recent one for $12,265 from the Evergreen Foundation that will help fund an in-house mental house position. 

“We have some wonderful community members who help support us, and it’s kind of always been a goal for KARE to have in-house mental health,” Clark said. “It makes coordinated services so much easier. It opens spots for other kids in the community who may not come here, so it takes some burden off the other providers in the area.”

That grant, though, only funds the position for three months. 

“You have to have the resources and the community support to develop something like this,” she said. 

 

Summer Shindig

Join sponsors Boojum Brewing, Cooks Carpet & Flooring, Jack Bishop III of Edward Jones and Smoky Mountain Information Systems for a night of food, drinks and music to benefit Haywood County’s child advocacy center, KARE House. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and music from Ol’ Dirty Bathtub and Mark Shane & the Shane Gang begins at 6 p.m. Food will be available from Jose’s Taco Truck, as will a cash bar featuring wine and local brews. Tickets are $25 each, or two for $40. Kids under 5 are free, and kids aged 6-18 are $10. Each ticket includes one drink. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.karehouse.org/shindig or call 828.456.8995.

Date: Saturday, Aug. 24

Time: Gates at 5:30 p.m., music at 6

Location: 2436 Jonathan Creek Road

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